When I started my career, oddly enough as an illustrator, I asked a famous artists why there were so many nasty peers in the business and why professionals of his level were so friendly and helpful. He smiled and said, “there’s all the room at the top and precious little room at the bottom!”
It’s very true. Those just starting out are jockeying for position, work and notoriety and the competition can get nasty… in every industry and profession. While the competition rages, chances are you will fall into a small clique of friends who struggle together without overt jealousy and backstabbing. You all grow your careers and some may fall behind others but you still view the rest as compatriots and take them along with you, raising some with you or being raised by them. It is that small group that empowers you and helps you gauge the industry, discuss the pitfalls and share tips and tricks that will strengthen you.
One of the most frequent subjects that came up in my clique of peers was the power struggle of getting work from art directors. There was an ivory tower in which art directors were sequestered accessible only by dropping off a portfolio one night and picking it up the next morning, hoping, at best, for a handwritten note of encouraging words. Usually it was a form letter saying your samples would be held for future reference or nothing at all. Art directors never answered their phones so there was no way to follow up. At that time, the practice of self-promotion was limited to direct mail and expensive directories stating at $2,000 per page, published one year after paying the full amount. Not a sound investment but choices were limited.
When one person in the group got into a publication or agency, the others in the group waited like a pack of rabid dogs expecting a scrap of meat to fall on the floor. It was uncouth to directly ask for an introduction to the art director, but the hunger for scraps of meat is survival driven in the freelance world. Usually, we all blamed the art directors for being unavailable for what we saw as every day professional business.
When I became an art director for a well-known, global magazine, I swore to myself I would be different. I would see people’s portfolios in person, answer my phone and dedicate a wall in my office to posting samples of illustrators’ and designers’ samples so I could keep the magazine fresh and grow talent.
Not long into my new position, I was invited to a dinner of art directors from the Time Warner publications group. The invitation came on the same day as the dinner and dressed for comfort, rather than an important dinner, I grabbed a cab to the posh restaurant where the event was being held.
I stood alone, eating shrimp from a giant bowl in the corner that held, well, every shrimp that the fleet had caught that day while other art directors, dressed in NYC hippery chatted and laughed with each other. One by one, they gravitated to the shrimp bowl and I introduced myself and handed them a business card.
“WOW!” each one said upon reading my card. “I heard you were coming tonight and wanted to meet you!”
I must have seemed quite humble to them as I smiled softly while wondering what was the big deal. I looked at their cards and they were all the big muckity-mucks I had been trying to see for years. Here they were falling over themselves to talk to me now. My first thought was, don’t you recognize my name as the person who dropped off portfolio after portfolio and sent mailer after mailer for years? They didn’t and I realized being ignored as a freelancer was nothing personal. It had nothing to do with my work or me. I was just another freelancer out of too many invading their space.
After the dinner and promises of getting together for lunch and personal tours of my workplace, I called several members of my freelancing clique to tell them who I had met and my amazement at the attention I had received. They were aghast at the names of the dinner guests. They also asked if I was going to still speak to my “old buddies” now that I was “at the top.”
There was that phrase again – “the top.” What did it mean?
As days went by, I would be called out to the reception area to see a portfolio of someone who showed up and asked to “see the art director.” It fast became an inconvenience and annoyance. As I lunched with the art directors I had met, they were amazed I would take the time to see people personally.
“How many of these people were worth the time and aggravation?” one asked.
“I can’t say I’ve met a viable talent… yet!” I answered, defending the practice in hopes of the next great talent being among the crowd.
“A drop off policy will save you time,” he replied in a very as-a-matter-of-fact tone as if he was giving me advice on a better laundry detergent.
I was still in the zone of resenting art directors for ignoring my peer group. It didn’t take long to join the “dark side.”
After several months of personal portfolio viewings and answering my phone, rather than letting calls go to voicemail, I had been beaten down by utter stupidity and weirdness. The worst part of a power position is the power over people’s lives and dreams.
The hardest thing I had to do was face people who professed their lifelong dream of working for my publication and inform them they weren’t right for it. Some had a look on their face of utter disbelief. Some cried and some got angry… VERY angry!
People on the phone got rude and pushy. Some made threats and others were just creepy. I started to understand why the ivory tower was needed – for defense against the masses and keeping one’s sanity.
Freelancers need work to survive and many get desperate when the rent is coming due. The saddest pitch I ever got was while I was at a dear friend’s funeral. A man actually tried to show me his portfolio, propping it on a tombstone as if it were a desk.
Aside from my clique of friends, most of who knew their work wasn’t right for the publication, I started hearing from other past peers who wanted to work for me. Some said “with” me and some said that they decided they would “let me” use their work. Turning down some was hard but giving some a chance, which many blew, was harder. To this day, I haven’t spoken to many of them because they were either embarrassed they didn’t do a proper job or are mad I thought they didn’t do a proper job.
The problem with power is that you have to make hard decisions some people won’t like. You also have to dash dreams and bear the burden of people hating you even if you’ve done nothing wrong. The maddening thing is that you are bombarded by people with personal agendas and you are the key, in their minds. If you stop that agenda then you’ve made an enemy and in the age of the internet and the ease of “__________ is a dirty bastard” WordPress pages, Google returns may not show a loving picture of you to prospective clients and employers.
When I was a freelancer, I put up with some… odd personalities among art directors. There are, if you haven’t guessed, people who crave power because they enjoy it for the ability to torture others. As one art director I knew whined when she quit, “I didn’t think the job would be this hard. I thought I’d just be ordering people around!”
On one stormy February day, while suffering from the flu, I received a call from a client who told me he needed me to come in to get my next assignment. I asked if he could just email me the information and we could talk about it over the phone. “no!” he replied and I medicated myself and set off to his office, which was a harrowing trip as most of the subway lines were closed due to flooding, which only happens once in a blue moon in New York… or when you have a 104 degree temperature, chills and hallucinations. When I got there, he handed me a slip of paper with a few sentences of instructions written on it.
“Why couldn’t you have emailed this to me?” I asked while my bodily functions were shutting down.
“If I had to come in today, then everyone has to come in!” he responded.
Years later, while searching for an assistant, his résumé came across my desk. I heard he had been fired for sexually harassing a female coworker. My first thought was to set up an appointment with him on a stormy day and then not be in the office but I’m too afraid of bad karma. I just threw away his résumé.
“Living well is the best revenge,” or so I keep hearing. The Scorpio in me lives for revenge but I try to fight the urge to place the mercy bullet in the heads of those who did me wrong as they crawl towards me in the muddy slime. Falling from up high is a horrid thing for those who crave power for selfish reasons and a punishment more heinous than any bullet could provide.
When I speak to groups of students, I always tell them, among other gems of wisdom, “be kind to those you meet on the way up because you’ll meet them on the way down!” That’s not an original quote. It was Jackie Gleason who said it and he was known as “The Great One.”
In our industry, people shift around, change jobs, get fired or laid off and your network is one of the most important things in finding work, either staff positions or freelance. You’ll make enemies without even trying, so why make more by exerting selfish effort?
Some people just can’t help it. An old boss of mine who bathed in the glow of controlling so many careers couldn’t stand it when he was “retired.” Suddenly, he was no longer revered and was ignored. the loss of power made him crazy… crazier!
The point is, for most people who are trying to break through and gain clients, those who stand at the gate between you and assignments don’t have anything personal against you. They don’t look at your name and decide you don’t deserve to work for them. Your portfolio can show a huge amount of talent and still you don’t know why you can’t break through. It’s not something you should take personally. Keep up with a professional approach and THAT is the key – a professional approach!
Persistence with out pestering is the key. When someone told me they would call me every week to check if I had work for them, I would tell them not to do it. Most art directors will just consider you a pest and ignore your calls and emails. What I liked to see:
Be patient! I always appreciated those who would see me outside the office and converse politely. It showed me they were normal, easy-going and not the maniacs who couldn’t stop bugging me about when I would have work for them. When an art director is not in the office, don’t make them work!
There is no “I” in team. It is a collection of the right talent that makes for a better product, so use your leadership to encourage, mentor and guide your team. Be in charge but not in “power.” When you lead by example your team will go the extra mile for you and you will have their love and respect and that makes for a better workplace and future in a time when our future is so uncertain.